Monday, December 3, 2012

The 2-Way Mirror

Jake at 3 1/2 on Amelia Island, Florida December 2009
Sitting quietly in a dimly lit little room, I look through a 2-way mirror once again. Through it, I see a multidimensional spectrum.  Depending on which layer I choose to focus on, that one dimension comes into focus more clearly.  In the therapy wing of Baptist East Hospital, in Montgomery Alabama, my six-year old son, Jake is having his weekly half-hour speech therapy session.  In this little room, I am able to overlook his therapy session without needing to be with him, thus not interfering with the session and not distracting him in any way.  Important learning is taking place for a child that lives with autism.  Jake is 1 of every 88 children (and of those 88, it is 1 in every 54 boys) who cope with the challenges of the autism spectrum.  These are the most recent statistics from our national Center for Disease Control.  We call it a spectrum disorder, because while some kids may have similar attributes like the social and speech delays, no two children living with autism are truly alike.  But to us, his parents, Jake is one in a million, period.  This is probably true for every parent of a child that lives with special needs. 
Dad and son - Jake at 3 1/2

Every week that we go to speech therapy, I hope to see some sort of progress.  Whether I want to admit it or not, and whether or not this is a realistic expectation, this is always in the back of my head, percolating from inside of my very being.  This is the part of my soul that tells me to never give up hope and to send my positive energy out there with everything that I do for my son.  It is because I am so close to the situation, (I live inside of the box) that it’s hard for me to see the small progress that may be taking place from week to week.  However, as I distance myself from the situation, and take in several months’ worth of therapy (I think outside of the box), I am able to see the large momentum wheel spin forward.  Above, I reference my previous post from 1 November 2012: Inside – Outside – On Top of the Box, ( where parents of autistic kids “live inside the box” in order to focus on the task at hand.  Simultaneously, they have to “think outside the box” in order to problem solve daily, landing on top of the box - succeeding with both, and being able to repeatedly do this, with two feet in tact. 

But doing so is no simple matter.

Reality or Perception

When I think of a mirror, glass or a window, I think of light.  Light is a necessary component to help us see things more clearly.  Light gives us warmth.  Light gives us answers.  If we can see something in the best light, then we know what it is, what it means, and what it can or can’t do.  When we look at an object that captures light, like a 2-way mirror, we are able to see it’s reflection, and what this reflection means to us, is our own perception of that reflection.  We are seeing our child struggle, and we can’t help him figure out the right answers from where we are sitting.  In a sense, this mirror acts as a barrier and protects him from my distracting thoughts, while protecting me from the intensity of what it is like for him to struggle through a regular speech therapy session.  This holds true for any of the other therapies that he has as well.  Is it that we don’t want him to struggle at all, wishing that we could telepathically instill our own previously acquired skills in him?  Would we rather be the child who can see his own reflection clearly, without all these other thoughts running through his head.  On the other hand, would we rather be sitting where we are on the other side, looking at the child who can see only himself?  Looking through these multidimensional layers leaves us with unanswered questions and a feeling that things are unresolved.  Maybe we are trapped inside one of those dimensions, and in our struggle to make sense of it all, we end up getting lost inside of its layers.  Is this reality or perception?

Ironically, the child having the session is not distracted by the mirror or by his own reflection in any way.  It is the parent on the other side, who can feel distracted by what she experiences from her side - her own perception.   It is the observer that takes in a lot of information and struggles to process what she sees, versus how it makes her feel about what she is seeing.  My son, who views the mirror’s side, sees himself in its reflection and typically ignores the mirror.  It is of no importance to him.  He may, on occasion, catch his own reflection in passing, smile knowingly, and move on with his task.  He sees things as black and white in a way.  He is good at concrete thinking but abstract thoughts will not come to him naturally.  The puzzles on the sides above are some of the puzzles that Jake has worked on during speech therapy sessions.

Your own reflection

One of the viewer’s challenges of looking through a 2-way mirror is that while she stands on the window side, one other hidden dimension occasionally sneaks into focus.  This is her own reflection staring back at her.  The viewer from the window side can see through the mirror-window barrier and into the other side, simultaneously catching a light glimpse of her own reflection.  The psychological translation of this event may be that we see a part of ourselves in our children.  We may remember what it felt like to struggle with something in our past, and want to save our child the pain of going through his own learning mistakes.  What I’ve learned through my own experience with autism, is that there are no learning mistakes.  Making mistakes is a part of learning, so trying to prevent mistakes from happening, is really, interfering with the learning process that is taking place.

How does it make you feel when you see your own reflection, when you don’t expect to see it, like when you walk by a building with reflective glass and catch a glimpse of your own reflection?  Does it catch you off guard and leave you feeling vulnerable?  

Jake at age 6 - fine motor skills/occupational therapy session
Jake’s speech and occupational therapy sessions are scheduled back to back on Thursday afternoons, which is when I typically hit my low energy point of the week.  I observe his speech discreetly, but wait in the sitting area during his occupational therapy, and occasionally come in to observe a session.  The occupational therapy is set up differently than the speech therapy.  Occupational therapist and child work in several areas including a gym with various stations, as well as a classroom type of therapy room, which doesn’t have the 2-way mirror.  At that late point of the week, I am usually struggling to make it to the end of the day, coffee or no coffee.  Seeing a tired reflection staring back at me, is sometimes a startling realization of how living with autism affects us parents, and how exhausted we are most of the time.  I almost feel maternal towards the image that glances back at me, as if I am not even looking at myself, but glancing back at a tired child who needs to be put down for a nap.  By putting all of myself into family life with autism, I sometimes feel like I am losing myself in the process, and that can be a scary thought.  It is this particular thought, that is a constant reminder that I need to find my balance.  I need to reach that “Zen” state of mind, where only the things that I prioritize matter (living inside of the box). 

Seeing your own reflection without being ready for it makes you see things as they really are.  It is your own personal truth, in the raw.  You question if it is really you looking back, and wonder if the way that you see yourself, is the way that others also see you.   Can others notice how exhausted I am behind my friendly smile?

At a local pumpkin patch farm, October 2012 - every outing is a teaching opportunity.

Pealing back the layers

After sixteen months of coming here, I realize that this 2-way mirror has given me more than just the 2 obvious views.  I think about the emotions that I typically experience while observing my son going through his therapy sessions.  I wish that I could reach through, pierce the window-mirror barrier and help him through his difficulties, fully knowing that I cannot help him in this way.  He will have to get there on his own timeline, when he is ready and has acquired the skills he needs to get there.  

I also watch all the little successes that he has and quietly cheer him on from the other side, occasionally blurting out a happy giggle or a cheer.  The most difficult thing to watch is his struggle with the new things, and the little noises that he makes in frustration or in an attempt to escape the new activity.  The speech therapist teaches him through different games and activities such as puzzles, stacking toys, reading books and matching games.  Teaching through games enables a two-way interaction, and proper game playing with taking turns, which is critical in triggering speech and promoting a natural social interaction (something of which kids with autism have a deficit).

A spectrum of dimensions

Looking through the 2-dimensions of the mirror can also produce a kaleidoscope effect of other dimensions that shift and reflect into our life with autism.  Three such dimensions keep presenting themselves to my mind’s eye: the past, the future and the present.  I purposely state them in this order, with the present tense being the last, because the present tense is the most important one.  It is the only one over which we have any sort of control. 

The Past
The past is where we noticed symptoms of autism, long before we knew what autism was.  The past presented all the unknowns, and didn’t prepare us for what was about to come. The past is also where we received the autism diagnosis and got started on our life-long family journey. 

The Future
The future is where we place all of our hopes and dreams for our son.  It is with hopeful hearts that we keep moving forward, progressing in our journey to support Jake's development.  Carrying forth our mission of fulfilling our goal for him to become independent, having a meaningful and fulfilling life. 

Holiday lights on Amelia Island Florida, Thanksgiving 2012.  Lights give us a feeling of well-being and give us hope.
The Present
Lastly, the present is the one over which we really have any type of control.  While going on this family journey, we keep the past in our mind, because this is where it all began.  This is where we started.  We look onto the future with hope, because we know that we are doing all the right things for him right now.   It is only with hope that we can get through this life-long journey.  But it is in the present where we must live.  It is in the daily tasks that maximize the learning that takes place.  These are some of the things that we are able to even control in any way.  It is something that I try to remind myself, even as I advocate for Jake and work on raising autism awareness, so that he and other children living with autism, can have a good future – a future where they are accepted and appreciated.  I remind myself that even though Alex and I do what we can to secure a good future for our son, that we must live in the present, with all of it’s ups and downs and learning challenges, because without doing so, we would not maximize his potential to have that future that we dream about.  Living in the present means embracing it all with open arms and accepting him exactly as he is right now.  

As I look to the past to that first week after we received Jake’s new autism diagnosis back in the summer of 2009, and then looked up to the universe and said “bring it on, ” we will persevere into the future, while embracing every present step of the journey, with our heads lifted high, and our hearts filled with a seamless kaleidoscope of light, hope and love.

An evening stroll through our neighborhood in Montgomery - a path leads to the light of a beautiful sunset.

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  1. Hello,

    I have a quick question about your blog, do you think you could email me?

    I look forward to hearing from you,


  2. Emily, Thanks for your message. I sent you a g-mail the other day - I'm not sure if you've seen it yet?